The Path to Citizenship Is Nearly Impossible. These Groups Aim to Help

the path to citizenship is nearly impossible. these groups aim to help

The Path to Citizenship Is Nearly Impossible. These Groups Aim to Help

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…,” the crowd recites — the last step of an often complicated and long journey. The citizenship oath ceremony is a meaningful and emotional occasion. It’s the culmination of years of hard work, endless worries, and tons of paperwork. Nevertheless, with limited avenues to citizenship and a load of immigration difficulties, this day feels distant for many immigrants.

A recent study by Professor Emily Ryo of the University of Southern California notes that “non-white applicants and Hispanic applicants are less likely to be approved [for naturalization] than non-Hispanic white applicants.” While troublesome, the findings are not surprising. Ethnicity and race have historically factored in the quest for naturalization. For instance, The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited this benefit to “free white” individuals, and it wasn’t until 1870 when the U.S. granted citizenship to persons of “African nativity and… descent,” Ryo writes in the study.

The citizenship process is obscure due to the lack of information about legal options and available aid. Many are eligible to apply but don’t even consider the possibility because of the high application fees — currently $640 to $725. A Pew Research survey showed that “18% [of Mexican green card holders] identified administrative barriers, such as the financial cost of naturalization,” as an impediment to starting their naturalization process.

According to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) established the I-912 form, a standardized fee waiver process, in 2010. You can file this form alongside the main application, streamlining requests. Still, this knowledge is not widely known.

Along with the lack of information, transparency is another hurdle for immigrants to overcome. Even though USCIS must, by law, offer explanations of the basis for denials, as Ryo explains, “over 20% of denials in [the study] are missing on adjudication reason. Another 7% of denials have the adjudication reason of ‘Other.’” This situation leaves applicants without a clear way to proceed with their cases.

It’s a system that needs an overhaul, especially when it comes to some of the most vulnerable groups like Black Latines and trans Latines. An analysis by The Center for American Progress revealed that “LGBT people in ICE custody are 97 times more likely to be sexually victimized than non-LGBT people in detention.”

The journey to naturalization is unique to each applicant. To learn more about the challenges immigrants face and how they have navigated the system, Refinery29 Somos spoke with four Latines about their experiences. While they share their frustrations, they also give us a glimpse of what is possible with organizations like TransLatin@ Coalition, the Asociación de Salvadoreños de Los Ángeles (SOSAL), the Central American Resource Center, and the International Rescue Committee, which help our communities adjust their status with a friendly face, cultural awareness, and a boatload of support.

Ana María González

Ana María González is a trans woman from Mexico. She works as the coordinator of substance abuse and mental health at the TransLatin@ Coalition in Los Angeles.

I applied three times for my residency. The first appointment went very badly; the immigration officer did not treat me well, and he was uncomfortable with the way I was dressed. I know I don’t have to be liked or anything, but he spoke to me very coldly, unlike when he talked to my attorney, who was a cis woman. In the end, the officer denied my application, and I believe that he denied my application because of prejudice, because his attitude was not favorable toward me.

My lawyer didn’t help me either. She always stressed to me that she had other trans clients who studied and were educated, and because I didn’t go to school, she treated me differently without taking into account the difficulties I went through. I had to survive; either I survived or I studied. How was I going to study? In Mexico, to be accepted in a school, I had to live like a man, and I wasn’t that person. When I was in second grade, I was kicked out of school. I was not accepted in high school because I was different.

In 2015, when I applied for citizenship, I was already a client of TransLatin@ Coalition, and their lawyer, Kimberly Carver, also a trans woman, was an angel to me. Her help made the process easier. When an organization supports you, it has a lot of value.

Without a doubt, in this process, I experienced more prejudice than a non-trans person. People show their discomfort. When, for some reason, people realize you are a trans person, you feel how their perspective changes, how the way they see you changes. Everything changes; they are not professionals, and the treatment is completely different.

Thomas Kennedy

Thomas Kennedy is an immigrant from Argentina. He works as Senior Political Fellow at Immigration Hub in New York.

I came here when I was 10 years old in 2001 on a tourist visa with my parents when there was a big economic implosion in my country. We ended up deciding to leave our country. We overstayed our tourist visas. At the time, my parents thought it would be easier to adjust our status. My dad had a sister in New Jersey, and he thought he could do a family petition without realizing that the process was more complicated and lengthier than he assumed. Then 9/11 happened five or six months after we got here. That made everything more difficult. I ended up staying undocumented for 12 years or so and was later able to get my papers through a marriage petition.

While the marriage petition process was happening, I was nervous every time I went before the case officer. You are in front of a person who has complete discretion to make or break your life. So it was always stress-inducing, but it was without any major hiccups.

This is an assumption, but I think it’s a safe assumption that, you know, some guy like me, named Thomas Kennedy, who’s pretty white, might not face the same difficulties as somebody with a different complexion, different name, different backgrounds, and different country. It just wouldn’t surprise me knowing our immigration system. That’s, you know, quite frankly, pretty racist.

You can observe it at the macro level as well. Think about the difficulty that a Haitian asylum seeker, or an asylum seeker from honestly, whichever country in Africa or Central America, will face compared to an asylum seeker from Ukraine. I know there’s a war happening there, but there are a lot of wars happening all over the world. I don’t blame any individual Ukrainian for that, but it reveals systemic inequality in the U.S. immigration process.

For me, being a U.S. citizen means peace of mind in terms of not having to live with the anxiety of any encounter with police resulting in my possible detention and deportation. Beyond that, it opened up a whole universe of opportunities for me. All of a sudden, I could afford a college education without having to pay four times as much as an international student, obtain a driver’s license, or get a job with benefits. It was just a load off of my back.

Luz Mack 

Luz Mack is an Afro-Latina from the Dominican Republic. She is a children’s book author based in New York.

I came to this country at 6 with my sister Nathaly. My stepdad is a Vietnam veteran. That meant as soon as my father married my mother, she could have become a citizen, but we didn’t know the law and we didn’t have anyone to educate us on these legal matters. My mom was deemed an illegal resident for a while.

I was, too. My citizenship was denied twice when I was living in New York at 18, and we were offered no explanations. My mom had questions because my younger sister was approved for citizenship without issues. No one could explain why one daughter was approved and not the other. It didn’t make sense because we both immigrated at the same time; we both came together with the same paperwork. The laws were so confusing, and we didn’t know how to advocate for ourselves.

I had to go all over the citizenship process as an adult while living in Florida. My parents advised me that I should change my last name to my stepfather’s to apply for citizenship again. So I did that, and it took such a long time. Later, we learned that it wasn’t necessary. It’s how a lot of misinformation got shared. This is the sad part of not having the right people in your corner and not knowing how to access information.

Eventually, I got an attorney in Florida. I think he was Cuban. I’ll never forget that he was the man who sat down to explain the process to my mom and me. In New York, they just rushed through it. They didn’t even really want to get to know us.

The attorney said he would not make life difficult for me, that I was inherently a citizen because of my parents and that he’d make sure my paperwork was in order so I could be approved. He explained that I still had to go through the test because I had already paid the fees. That’s when I learned something vital: If you don’t know what’s available to you, you’re always going to pay for that lack of information, spending money unnecessarily.

For me, citizenship means, in essence, that I belong here. It’s like a proof of membership, if you will, that I belong to some place. But now I don’t need to show that proof anywhere. I know I belong wherever I go. Unfortunately, in this country, they need that proof to understand that you not only are from here but also deserve to stay here. And, you know, have the same opportunities as anyone else, even as the people born here.

Gabriela Orellana

Gabriela Orellana is a Salvadoran immigrant. She works as the coordinator of community services and public relationships at ASOSAL in Los Angeles.

I arrived undocumented to the United States in 1998 when I was 15 years old. My parents were already living here. Those first years were difficult for me because I came with a great motivation to learn English and go to school, but one of my teachers told me that I would not be able to do anything because I didn’t have documents, which broke my spirit. I ended up not graduating from high school.

When I was eligible to apply for citizenship, I was already a single mother with two small children, and sometimes I did not have enough money. I could not even think of becoming a citizen because of the economic situation. Also, by then, my English was not very strong, so I was afraid I would not pass the test. But thank God I met people who helped me along the way, and that is how I was able to apply for citizenship because someone gave me the money for the application as a birthday gift.

When I became a citizen, the immigration agent congratulated me and told me that many doors had opened that day and that I should take advantage of them and return to school. That was precisely what I did. As a single mom, I returned to an adult school and got my high school diploma. The teachers told me that I should go to college, so I went to Pasadena Community College and transferred to Cal State LA, where I got my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

As a Latina, accessing citizenship was more difficult for me because sometimes, they think because we have an accent, we are not capable of doing certain things. I always tell people I have an accent, but I don’t think with an accent; I understand English and can write it. Those negative expectations fill you with a lot of insecurity.

My experience during my citizenship interview wasn’t too bad. Still, now that I work as an interpreter for immigration cases, I have had negative experiences as an interpreter. For example, I took an elderly lady, about 70 years old, who had memory problems. She even had a document from her doctor to prove it. Still, during her citizenship interview, the immigration officer asked her insistently about specific dates, things my client no longer remembered, and that was precisely why she brought a document about her medical condition. The immigration officer was a bit rude in the way she was treating my client. She denied her application. After the incident, I filed a complaint with the supervisor about how my client was treated because it was unfair.

I have witnessed cases where the agents want to intimidate people, and you can see it in how they ask questions or look at them to make them nervous. You can feel a difference in the treatment of the immigration agents.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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